Jonathan Edwards stands as one of the dominant figures in 18th century American religion, a fiery revivalist preacher and a pioneer in the Reformed Church, which would eventually be merged into today's United Church of Christ.
Jonathan Edwards' Genius
The fifth child of Rev. Timothy and Esther Edwards, Jonathan was the only boy in their family of 11 children. He was born in 1703 in East Windsor, Connecticut.
Edwards' intellectual brilliance was evident from an early age. He started at Yale before he was 13 years old and graduated as valedictorian. Three years later he received his master's degree.
At age 23, Jonathan Edwards succeeded his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, as pastor of the church in Northampton, Massachusetts. At the time, it was the richest and most influential church in the colony, outside of Boston.
He married Sarah Pierpoint in 1727. Together they had three sons and eight daughters. Edwards was a key figure in the Great Awakening, a period of religious fervor in the middle of the 18th century. Not only did this movement bring people to the Christian faith, but it also influenced the framers of the Constitution, who ensured freedom of religion in the United States.
Jonathan Edwards gained fame for preaching the sovereignty of God, the depravity of humans, the immanent danger of hell, and the need for a New Birth conversion. It was during this period that Edwards preached his most famous sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" (1741).
Jonathan Edwards' Dismissal
Despite his success, Edwards fell into disfavor with his church and area ministers in 1748. He called for stricter requirements on receiving communion than did Stoddard. Edwards believed too many hypocrites and unbelievers were being accepted into church membership and developed a rigid screening process. The controversy boiled over into Edwards' dismissal from the Northampton church in 1750.
Scholars see the event as a turning point in American religious history. Many believe Edwards' ideas of reliance on God's grace instead of good works began a rejection of Puritan attitudes prevalent in New England up to that time.
Edwards' next post was far less prestigious: a small English church in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where he also served as a missionary to 150 Mohawk and Mohegan families. He pastored there from 1751 to 1757.
But even on the frontier, Edwards was not forgotten. In late 1757 he was called to be president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University). Unfortunately, his tenure lasted only a few months. On March 22, 1758, Jonathan Edwards died of fever following an experimental small pox inoculation. He was buried in Princeton cemetery.
Jonathan Edwards' Legacy
Edwards' writings were ignored in the latter 19th century, when American religion spurned Calvinism and Puritanism. However, when the pendulum swung away from liberalism in the 1930s, theologians rediscovered Edwards.
His treatises continue to influence missionaries today. Edwards' book The Freedom of the Will, considered by many to be his most important work, contends that man's will is fallen and needs God's grace for salvation. Modern Reformed theologians, including Dr. R.C. Sproul, have called it the most important theological book written in America.
Edwards was a staunch defender of Calvinism and the sovereignty of God. His son, Jonathan Edwards Jr., and Joseph Bellamy and Samuel Hopkins took Edwards Senior's ideas and developed the New England Theology, which influenced 19th century evangelical liberalism.
(Information in this article is compiled and summarized from The Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale, Biography.com, and Christian Classics Ethereal Library.)